Super Bowl Ads Work (Almost Every Time)

What is it about the Super Bowl, the most expensive venue in the advertising universe, that gives otherwise savvy marketers permission to act the fool and offer up commercials that are somebody’s version of funny, outrageous, cutting edge—and not much else?

That last year compelled one-third of them to spend more than 10 percent of their entire annual media budgets on this single event (per Kantar Media)? That attracts eight to 10 first-time advertisers each year (Kantar)?

What is it? It’s 100 million plus viewers whose responses to their commercials defy all conventional wisdom about what constitutes “effective advertising.”

Warning: this may confuse you.

First of all, chances are you can find a poll out there somewhere that will measure viewers who . . . “like” your commercial, or think it’s “funny,” because there’s a lot of them and they’re all over the place. Last year, for example, USA Today’s Ad Meter buried CareerBuilder’s “Casual Fridays” spot, but rated it their second funniest. And Budweiser’s Clydesdale “New Friend” spot was one of Fox’s 10 worst. No worries: it made USA’s top 10. Kellogg’s School of Management Review rated Bridgestone’s spots among the game’s worst? Who cares? USA Today ranked them in their top 10. And how’s this for clarity? The Wall Street Journal’s poll shows Audi’s “Green Car” commercial was voted the game’s best—and worst.

But none of these polls is remotely indicative of the potential impact of these commercials on the brands’ business. And according to a study conducted by Millward Brown Optimor for the NFL, it doesn’t matter anyway. The study claims that, based on Nielsen sales data from “several dozen Big Game advertisers . . .  brands that advertise on the Super Bowl see an average sales uplift of more than 11 percent in the following month. This generates an ROI from Super Bowl ads 250 times greater than ROI from the average TV ad” (Joanna Seddon, CEO, Millward Brown Optimor, “Super Bowl, Super Score,” Adweek, Feb 8, 2010).

On the other hand, according to the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association’s 2010 Super Bowl Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, the amount viewers intend to spend on merchandise advertised in the Super Bowl has dropped more than 12 percent in the past two years ( Industry: “2010 Super Bowl Consumer Survey Results: Shopping, Spending, Commercial Viewing”).

So which is it?

There were 39 advertisers on the 2010 Super Bowl (Kantar), so Millward Brown’s sample of “several dozen advertisers” suggests they analyzed virtually all of them—good, bad or ugly. And what this study seems to suggest is that the content of commercials that run on the Super Bowl damned near doesn’t matter. They all averaged 11 percent sales growth over the next month. In fact, adding “the tremendous brand-building power of the Super Bowl itself . . . doubles the (ROI) returns.” Just run it, baby.

On the other hand: “A major brand that ranked No. 1 on the Ad Meter in a past year yielded an average ROI of below $1 while a different ad from the same brand ranked No. 20 and yielded an average ROI of almost $3” (Millward Brown).

I’m confused.

According to a recent Nielsen poll (Nielsen Wire), “51 percent of Super Bowl television viewers expect the commercials to provide the best entertainment of the event.” Instinctively, these expectations have little direct relevance to real business. And how could they? They’ve been nurtured through the years by the likes of commercials featuring flabby, hairy men in underwear (and what’s with that, anyway, Bud Light, CareerBuilders, Dockers?), farting Clydesdales, crotch-biting dogs, been-there-done-that talking animals—including a chimp entertained by pseudo-farts from a whoopee cushion—and “too raw for TV” commercials. Today 76.3 percent of Super Bowl viewers think commercials that run on the Big Game are, hey, “mainly about entertainment” (Annual Survey, RAMA, 2010).